For those of us with recent immigrants in our family tree, passenger lists can give you a wonderful snapshot of your ancestor. For example, my 2x great-grandmother, Theresa Kiebel came back to the United States in 1920 with my great-grandfather in tow:
She was also held for special inquiry since she was a widowed woman at the time. She didn’t get the chance to leave New York for about eight days (this I gathered from how many breakfast they served her and her son) – presumably when her father or brother came to claim her and swear she wouldn’t be a “Likely Public Charge” as she was so labeled on the form.
There is a lot of information you can find in these wonderful records! Like the records I have pictured, it shows things like where they are going and to whom, a relative that was left behind, birth place location, language spoken, etc. Sometimes you’ll get a physical description, how much money they had, and even how much luggage they carried. It really can help tell the story of your immigrant ancestors!
Although not everything is correct. For example, I know that my great-grandfather was not born in Vukovar, Yugoslavia and had been in the United States before but his immigration record shows otherwise. Lucky for me, I have his birth certificate from Pennsylvania, so I know for sure that he was born in the United States and had therefore been here before. I’m not sure why his mother would give that information – maybe it was easier to leave the country? Also, depending on when they returned to Austria-Hungary (which is what it was when they returned) he was most likely an infant and was therefore raised in Vukovar for about 10 years. So it could have seemed like he was born there. Either way, that information was incorrect and my great-grandfather did know it as he always listed his birthplace as Pennsylvania in his records.
So, how do you find these wonderful records online?
Searching for immigrants who came over before 1820 will not be easy. There weren’t uniform laws in place for the recording and keeping of such records. There are some that exist, however. The National Archives and Record Administration has records (in microfilm) for New Orleans, LA, 1813-1919 (film publication M2009) and for Philadelphia, PA, 1800-1819 (film publication M425). Neither one of these are currently online though.
What you can find online is a list from the Library of Congress of books that have been published that have reconstructed passenger lists (that list can be found here). The National Archives is also a wonderful place to go for more information on what is available from before 1820!
Obviously, NARA is a great place to go for indexes and microfilmed copies of the original passenger lists. However, for online sources you have a few options:
- Ancestry.com: This is my first option because I have a subscription to it. And, as you may have noticed from my citations, it’s where I got my immigration information on the Kiebel/Langneck family.
- Ellis Island: This has just recently been updated and the search form is different now. However, you can still search and somewhat see the information for the passenger list. What I tend to do is if I found the record on this website, then I go to Ancestry.com and sometimes will have to manually search for the passenger record to get a clearer view of the record (and save it to my ancestor).
- Castle Garden: This website is dedicated to the first immigration station before Ellis Island and was in operation from 1855-1890. The website has a search engine for finding immigrants who came over during those times.
- Dr. Steve Morse: This is one of my favorite search engines for passenger lists! It is a one-step webpage that you can use to help you search Ellis Island, Castle Garden and other ports. The link I gave you goes right to the page that describes what the page does and how to use it. FYI: The links that go to the Ellis Island site are not currently working with Ellis Island’s updated site. The information that he gives IS there but you’ll need to then manually search on Ellis Island’s website for the information to see the passenger list. I’m hopeful this will be updated but for now, this work around works.
- FamilySearch.org: There are passenger lists available through FamilySearch.org that have been indexed and are therefore searchable by name but not all of them are indexed. Some you may have to look through image by image.
- The Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild (ISTG): This is a site I haven’t used yet but it is bookmarked to go through. It is a volunteer driven group and they transcribe passenger lists and then post them online. The site has been running since 1998 and their blog was last updated 5 January 2015 so it is still an ongoing volunteer project.
Some items to keep in mind:
- SPELLING! First off, the name was not changed at Ellis Island. (See this article for more information). Each manifest is based off of the manifest that was recorded from wherever they left from. Be aware that spellings change with accents and typos over time so when you’re searching, search for all variations of the name. Even better would be to search with a phonetic spelling too and use wildcard searches. First names were also spelled oddly. In the birth record for my great-grandfather, his name is spelled Frederick. However, ten years later after being overseas for a number of years, his name on the passenger list is Fridrih.
- Remember that people came over in family groups usually, with maybe the father or oldest son going over first and then the rest following later. That can help in finding a family unit if you know they all came over.
- Another pull factor into coming to the United States are friends. So if you see your ancestor living with others that he isn’t related to but they are all from the same country, you should search the passenger records for those people as well. When finding your ancestor is difficult, sometimes you’ll find a friend and realize your ancestor was next to him (or near him) all along although the name is spelled very differently!
- If you’re having trouble finding a date for when your ancestor came over, look at the 1900-1930 census records as those will provide a year of immigration for each person of foreign birth. Also, if the ancestor was naturalized, their papers may give information on their date and place of arrival. This works very well for those naturalized after 1906.
Good luck on your searches and let me know if you feel I left out something vital for passenger lists.
 “New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 8 July 2014), manifest S.S. Caronia, 31 December 1920, stamped 234, line 23, entry for Terezia Langeneck, age 30.
 “New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 8 July 2014), Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry, S.S. Caronia, 5 January 1921, stamped p. 298, line 64, entry for Terezia Langeneck, age 30.
 Pennsylvania Department of Health, birth certificate no. 123372-1910 Frederick Langeneck (1910); Division of Vital Records, Harrisburg.